This day / 42 years ago / The shortest foot, the longest yards
Tom Dempsey, lacking any toes in his kicking foot, nailed a 63-yard field goal - an NFL record that still stands.
Kicker Austin Rehkow's 67-yard field goal made headlines last month after beating out the previous high-school mark by one yard. The two feats are out of reach of the pros.
Tom Dempsey, who set the NFL record with the New Orleans Saints by kicking a 63-yarder in Tulane Stadium to beat the Detroit Lions on November 8, 1970, once said all the conditions have to be right to kick the ball far.
Perhaps not all.
Dempsey was born without any toes on his right foot. That supposed handicap didn't stop him from playing sports in high school and junior college, including wrestling, athletics and football.
At first he used a sawed-off shoe with cloth covering the hole. Later he used tape. Eventually, Hall of Famer Sid Gilman, who recruited Dempsey to San Diego, helped design a special shoe for the kicker. Dempsey says he was filmed kicking barefoot to see where he made contact, and the company designed the shoe to conform best to his foot.
In Dempsey's first full season with the Saints in 1969, he converted 22 of 41 field goals. However, he made only five of 15 attempts in his team's first seven games of 1970, during which the Saints went 1-5-1.
On that chilly, damp November day in Tulane Stadium, Dempsey found his footing again against the Lions. He made three field goals in the first half, and a touchdown by running back Tom Barrington made it 16-14 New Orleans.
The tables turned when Errol Mann chipped in an 18-yarder with 11 seconds remaining to put Detroit up 17-16. After the ensuing kickoff the Saints found themselves deep in their own territory. Quarterback Billy Kilmer found Al Dodd for a 17-yard pass, stopping the clock with two seconds remaining on the Saints' 45-yard line. In those days, the uprights were on the goal line.
"I had called timeout, and I asked our offensive coordinator [Don Heinrich], 'Have we got anything set for this?'" J.D. Roberts, a former star Oklahoma University football player who was coaching in his first game after the previous coach had been fired, told The Oklahoman newspaper a couple of years ago. Heinrich told him, "Not really."
That left all hope on Dempsey, whose nickname in those rougher days was "Stumpy."
The record at the time was 56 yards, set by Bert Rechichar in 1953.
While the standard is to kick from seven yards behind the line, the place kicker went back a further yard to let Dempsey change the angle of the kick, which thus became 63 yards.
'I don't believe this!'
"When I kicked it, I knew I kicked it right," Dempsey said in a video interview on si.com. "It was gonna be right. I was a little concerned because the wind might have pushed it because there was wind that day to the sides," he recalled.
"I don't believe this," the broadcaster said about the attempt. A second later, he shouted, "It's good! I don't believe this! The field goal attempt is good from 63 yards away!"
The team and fans responded like the Saints had just won a championship, not their second regular season game. The partying continued until the morning, mainly in the locker room - where the police delivered a case of beer - and later in a bar.
The Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio soon called, asking for his blunt kicking shoe. The Hall solicited NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to convince Dempsey. The kicker reminded them he still had half-a-season to play. The shoe and the ball are now on display in the Saints Hall of Fame.
Dempsey would go on to play with four other teams in a career that ended in 1979 with 729 points and an accuracy rate of 61.9 percent.
Three players would eventually tie Dempsey's regular-season record, but none would surpass it. The Denver Broncos' Jason Elam tied the mark in 1998, followed by Oakland Raider Sebastian Janikowski in September 2011 and David Aikers of the San Francisco 49ers last month. Ola Kimrin kicked a 65-yard field goal for Denver in 2002, but it was a preseason game and so does not count as a record.
Elam said that what Dempsey did was pretty amazing considering the era he came up in. Now, if someone were to kick a field goal from 64 or 65 yards, the record would hold many years, he predicted. It would be amazing for someone to kick 70 yards, said Elam, noting that there is a limit to how far a person can let fly a leather ball with the help of a leg.